Shakespeare’s Recipe of Powerful Key Tools


By Marc Connor, Ph.D., University of Washington and Lee

Shakespeare’s characters had the power to impact the audiences through strong emotions of trauma, isolation, sacrifice, pain, and passion for love. However, toward the end, his plays gave the message that love trumps all!

An artist poses as Shakespeare, writing on a piece of paper with a feather pen
Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is primarily a play about love, with other elements on the sidelines. (Image: Slaven/Shutterstock)

Shakespeare’s Figure of Grace

Shakespeare's portrait.
A portrait of William Shakespeare. (Image: John Taylor/Public domain)

One of the most important concepts in Shakespearean comedy and work in general was the role or function of the figure of grace. It had a religious and dramatic function in Shakespeare, in the sense that the function of the figure of grace made all the difference in how a Shakespeare play proceeded.

With this tool, some fundamental questions were addressed such as, ‘Will the play verge toward comedy, or tragedy?’, ‘Will love be restored, or lost?’, ‘Will the deception of external appearance be pierced and true knowledge attained, or will the characters remain in ignorance to the end?’ These were essential issues in any Shakespeare play, and by watching how the figure of grace functioned, one went far in understanding how Shakespeare’s dramatic art worked.

Learn more about Shakespeare’s Theater and Stagecraft.

Viola: The Love Instructor

In Twelfth Night, Viola was the key figure. Just as she opened Olivia to the possibilities of love, after a meeting between them, Olivia said, “Why then, methinks it is time to smile again.” She accomplished the same thing with Orsino. Gradually Orsino became more attracted to Cesario, though without his even being aware of it.

It was not that Orsino was attracted to the young man; rather, he was attracted to the young woman who was the true essence behind the disguise of Cesario which fits with the play’s effort to get beyond surface appearance to true, interior reality.

When Orsino once more asked Cesario to woo Olivia, but he was really desiring to be wooed himself. Viola protested that it may be that Olivia simply would not love the duke; Viola stated to Orsino:

Say that some lady, as perhaps there is,
Hath for your love as great a pang of heart
As you have for Olivia: you cannot love her:
You tell her so. Must she not then be answer’d?

Orsino protested, but Viola insisted so powerfully that she became Orsino’s instructor in love. “What dost thou know?” Orsino demanded, and Viola responded, “Too well what love women to men may owe: / In faith, they are as true of heart as we.” She concluded, in a metaphor of external appearance and internal truth that got at the very heart of Orsino’s pretensions at love:

“We men may say more, swear more, but indeed / Our shows are more than will: for still we prove / Much in our vows, but little in our love”. It was another crucial scene of instruction.

Learn more about the role of appearance versus reality in Twelfth Night.

Sequence of Transformation

At the end of the play, Orsino confronted Olivia and demanded her love. He saw that Olivia thought she was in love with Cesario. In fact, Viola’s twin brother Sebastian had appeared and Olivia thought he was Cesario and asked him to marry her, which he agreed. Now she thought Viola was her new husband standing next to the duke.

Orsino was enraged, but did not challenge Cesario but shouted that his pain was so great that he would “sacrifice the lamb that he loved.” He wanted to kill Cesario, less to punish Olivia or Cesario, but more to harm himself by harming what he most loved. Viola’s response was astonishing, “And I most jocund, apt, and willingly, / To do you rest, a thousand deaths would die.”

Characters from Shakespeare's play Twelfth Night.
Olivia, in Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night, had fallen for Viola who was a man in disguise. (Image: Robert Staines/Public domain)

At that point Viola exclaimed for her love, when Olivia asked her where she was going? Viola exclaimed: “After him I love / More than I love these eyes, more than my life. / More, by all mores, then e’er I shall love wife. / If I do feign, you witnesses above / Punish my life, for tainting of my love.”

She rejected all pretense or appearance, to admit what was true and real. That was the powerful moment of transformation in the play, when Viola swore to die for Orsino, even at his own hand, without even telling him that she was actually a woman.

Learn more about the use of comic tools in Twelfth Night.

Viola: The Figure of Grace

All the plot was working itself out when Sebastian appeared, he and Viola saw each other, Olivia and Orsino realized the two were twins. Olivia did not mind at all that she had married the ‘wrong’ man because she thought she had married the ‘right’ man, and Orsino realized why he was falling in love with his young male servant because ‘he’ was actually a beautiful young woman and the source of Orsino’s genuine love.

It all worked out, but only because of the remarkable figure of Viola, who opened all the characters to the experience of love through her selfless sacrifice, her ability to remove deceptive appearance and get to the inner reality, and her consequent function as the figure of grace.

Shakespeare’s Mature Comedy

Twelfth Night was in many ways a much more powerful and expansive comic vision than in Shakespeare’s early, formulaic comedies. There was nothing formulaic about Twelfth Night.

What drove this play, and all of Shakespeare’s mature comedies, was those fundamental ideas and principles that the tools opened up; how the high plot moved toward redemptive love, but the low plot moved toward isolation and vengeance; how sacrifice was necessary for love to occur, but the impulse to find a scapegoat for our own suffering was sadly powerful; how crucial it was to see through deceptive appearances and find the reality within our own selves; and how a remarkable figure like Viola, who could cross between worlds and cross-dress between genders, could be the agent of grace and redemption for the entire world of the play.

This is a transcript from the video series How to Read and Understand Shakespeare. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Shakespeare’s Evolving Genius

It was a powerful recipe for comedy, one that showed Shakespeare’s expanding genius, and setting a model that he further developed and transformed in the last plays of his career. Nearly all the tools in Twelfth Night applied also to the tragedies: Macbeth.

Those dynamics occupied Shakespeare during the period leading up to the great comedies and tragedies, the second set of Henry plays that featured perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest creation, the irrepressible Falstaff.

Common Questions About Shakespeare’s Tools

Q: How does Shakespeare treat love in Twelfth Night?

Love is the main ingredient of the play Twelfth Night which despite other strong emotions in it like pain and isolation has been treated as the winning recipe.

Q: What is the conflict in Twelfth Night?

The main conflict in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is the confusion created by the character in disguise, Viola. Due to this, Olivia has fallen for this ‘male disguise.’

Q: What are the main themes in Twelfth Night?

The main themes in Twelfth Night are: love, attraction, sadness, desire, isolation, disguise.

Q: What is the climax in Twelfth Night?

The climax in Twelfth Night is when Viola reveals her true identity and she is united with her brother Sebastian. Viola and Orsino, and Olivia and Sebastian become couples.

Keep Reading
How Were Shakespeare’s Plays Performed?
Even Shakespeare Knew—Great Artists Steal
Victorian Writers and Critics Clashed over Content—Who Won?